After last Saturday morning's mayoral press conference held in the loading bay of Third Man Records — at which TMR owner and founder Jack White was bestowed with Karl Dean's inaugural Music City Ambassador Award — I got an opportunity to sit down for a little face time with the mayor in none other than TMR impresario Ben Swank's office, which, as you can imagine, is markedly different than Dean's office down at the courthouse. That's where I last spoke to the Mayor when reporting this story on his Nashville Music Council. Saturday, we touched on that a bit, talked about the cultural direction of the city, and talked about how entities like Third Man, Rocketown and the coming convention center fit into his vision for Music City's future.
We also shared a breakfast sammy from The Grilled Cheeserie. He seemed to enjoy it greatly. So, when reading this Q&A, hear it in your mind's ear as if we're talking through mouthfuls of egg and melted cheese. At least for, like, the first two questions.
Nashville Cream: While this place, Third Man Records, being as close as it is to the new convention center is incidental, when I look around this area, I wonder what it’s gonna look like in a few years.
Karl Dean: It’s gonna be incredible. I mean, I don’t know what went into Jack [White]'s thinking when he selected this site, but — and he bought the building next door, apparently, and he’s invested here — this is gonna be great. Clearly, with the energy that’s created by having the convention center, when you have the new Omni — an 800-room hotel — the expansion of the Country Music Hall of Fame linked into the Omni, and you see all the development that’s going to occur around Korean Veterans’ Boulevard., going up (on) Fifth Ave. is a true Avenue of the Arts, and more live music than ever in Nashville. And then you see the tie-in between that area — the convention center area — The Frist and The Gulch. [Jack’s] a smart man. He’s a very talented, creative guy who’s got a great entrepreneurial spirit — a smart guy.
NC: When we talked before, you were talking about your mission to attract a creative class of people to the city to do business. I imagine Jack fits into that vision pretty well.
KD: Yeah. Those are the people you want, as a city. You’re talking about the convention center — and I certainly am proud and love the idea of that building, and love to build schools and libraries too — but what makes a city great is the people. And what you’re trying to build is a city that attracts creative people — whether that’s entrepreneurs in the health care industry, or whether it’s the spirit of somebody who can come here and create a song because they’re a talented songwriter, or they’re a talented musician, or they’ve got it all — like Jack seems to — you can do all of that, and be an entrepreneur and be a smart businessman. That’s exactly the message this city needs to be sending.
NC: Well in this neighborhood in particular, you look around and you see these old industrial buildings, and you can see how this was a more traditional industrial center at one point. With its proximity to the convention center — do see this area becoming an industrial district for entertainment and the arts, with places like Third Man, places that are cultural touchstones for the city?
KD: Oh yeah. I think you’re gonna see a ton of it oriented towards music. You’ll see people in visual arts coming down to this area, in addition to the Fifth Avenue area. This has been an interesting day. I started my day this morning, around 8:30, over at Rocketown — in their new location — to [help] plant a garden they’re working on there. It’s because it's Youth Service Day. That’s a great thing. Rocketown has incredible energy, positive energy for the city. And then you come over here, [it's] the same deal.
NC: When the Scene story we did last summer on the Music Council came out, a lot of readers responded to it by saying there was this sort of elephant in the room. They were basically asking, “If it’s your goal to make the city a great cultural destination by wooing the creative class, how do you reconcile that with the other cultural side of the city that’s very conservative — guns-in-bars bills, English-only bills, and things like that?” There seems to be this tension between people who want the city to go in the direction of being a progressive, first-class entertainment city, and people who are resistant to change. How do you balance those two things?
KD: A good example would be this recent debate around the anti-discrimination ordinance that was passed in the [city] council, dealing with Metro contracts. It’s not a radical piece of legislation — it’s something that many, many American cities have already done. And now the legislature is acting to perhaps prevent that. I think the legislature ought to let local government, the democratically elected leaders of a local government, make [those] decisions for [themselves] and not interfere. That is almost a conservative statement that I’m making. That is a traditional Republican viewpoint — local governs best. We know what the issues are here. And I think people know how Nashville feels. Nashville made the right decision in terms of English Only. Nashville is the only major city that, I think, has been tested in a way that we had actual referendum on English Only, and I was really involved in fighting that, and we won overwhelmingly. Anybody who comes here and gets the vibe of the city [knows] that this is an open, caring, diverse city that values those things, so I think we’re gonna be OK. I think a lot of cities go through these issues where there are debates about cultural things that play themselves out, and I don’t think that people necessarily make decisions on where they live based on that. Nashville’s got its own story to tell.
NC: But in the political rhetoric of the hour, a lot of people are trying to make a boogeyman out of things like public radio, and other institutions that are arts or education related. Do you feel that’s something you have to contend with?
KD: No. I really believe that, overwhelmingly in Nashville, of all demographics, people get that being a city that is receptive to creative, artistic people is vital to the future of the city. And that music is such a huge part of our identity and our tradition that we should be supportive of it always. I think more and more people are beginning to understand that the future is gonna be with those cities that attract the creative folks — like, even in health care — people who are entrepreneurs, who create new businesses; and in music, and in technology. So, I think the message we’re sending, that I’m trying to send — that we want to be a city that attracts creative people of all different fields — is the right message. I think people get it, across the board.
NC: So you think people in Nashville are good at looking above the parapet of the rhetoric?
KD: You know, we go through this [stuff]. NPR has been attacked before, politically. All this stuff comes and goes, it just depends on the political climate.
NC: And for people who live here and work in music, music and the arts are a very working-class, blue-collar thing. Those people understand the importance of having entertainment-based entities here. I mean, look at how many people are being employed by this event — Record Store Day — here, and all across town, today.
KD: Right. And that’s another thing I would add to this discussion. It goes beyond just culture. Part of Nashville’s attraction is that we are a city that is, I think, pro-business. I mean, I think of myself as being pro-business. We are a city and state that is low-taxed, it’s easy to do business here, and people want to do business here. And so you get that combination where you’re friendly to universities, and arts, and creative folks, and technology, plus you’re a friendly place for business — that’s the sweet spot.